By Do Ngan Phuong
JAKARTA – The bellhop is all smiles, his pleasant demeanor a standard welcome to all those streaming into the hotel smack in the middle of the Indonesian capital. But upon learning a visitor is Vietnamese, his face lights up with visible interest. “Is there,” he asks, “still war in Vietnam?”
Nearly 20 years have passed since Vietnam adopted its “open door policy,” which ushered in an era of economic restructuring that allowed the country to integrate into the world community. It has almost been 10 years since it joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), enabling it to strengthen its ties with its neighbors. Today, Vietnam, like the rest of the world, is plugged in, benefiting from new information and communication technologies, including the Internet.
But for many people, including those from ASEAN countries, Vietnam is still closely linked to a war that ended three decades ago. Many Indonesians seem to be no different, even though their country had enjoyed special relations with Vietnam during the time of the Indonesian republic’s founding president, Soekarno.
At the time, many Indonesians had probably been up to date with the goings-on in a country several thousand miles away. With today’s advances in technology making distances practically irrelevant in terms of the delivery of available information, it’s ironic that most Indonesians seem to know less about Vietnam. Those who make the extra effort of trawling the Web often come up with only bits of information about the Indochinese nation. Local papers are no help, with news about modern Vietnam rarely making it into their pages.
Movies – particularly those from Hollywood – have instead become the major sources of many Indonesians regarding Vietnam, a situation that has led to time-warped perceptions about a country that was once close to their late leader’s heart. Even well-known Indonesian producer and director Garin Nugroho says 95 percent of images about Vietnam originate from American movies, and that 90 percent of Indonesians are more or less influenced by Hollywood. The Vietnam known to most Indonesians is therefore the one portrayed in films such as “Rambo” or “Tour of Duty.”
Such movies dwell on the war fought between North Vietnamese and U.S. troops from 1965 to 1972, which culminated in the victory of the former over the U.S.-backed South Vietnam in April 1975. But Hollywood’s version of history has led a confused Indonesian journalist to ask, “In school I learned that Vietnam won over the Americans, but why does the film ‘Rambo’ suggest that Vietnam lost this war?”
Remembering Uncle Ho
At least he knows the war has ended. Some Indonesians – like the bellhop – do not, since they do not read or hear enough information about Vietnam that could challenge Hollywood’s interpretation. Or, for that matter, help them detect wrong information about Vietnam that is fed them. For example, an informal poll conducted by this writer among 30 university graduates, aged 23 to 28, from different cities and provinces in Indonesia, show that 70 percent of the respondents think that Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are two names of the same city – the capital of Vietnam. They were taught this in secondary school, they said.
A textbook for grade-six pupils being sold in a big bookstore in Jakarta in fact identifies Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam’s capital. The book was published in 2003 in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya.
Vietnam’s capital is Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh was the Vietnamese revolutionary leader who fought first the French and then the Americans. He was the founder and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was finally free of the French in 1954. The city of Saigon, which used to be the capital of South Vietnam, was renamed in his honor after the defeat of the Americans in 1975.
Ho Chi Minh visited Indonesia once, when Soekarno was still in power. Tedjabayu, training coordinator at the Institute for the Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI) in Jakarta, still has fond memories of the day when as a sixth grader he met Paman (Uncle) Ho – an endearment for the Vietnamese leader — during the latter’s brief trip to Indonesia. Tedjabayu says he had the honor of greeting Paman Ho.
“Uncle Ho visited and talked with the ordinary people in a town populated by the Chinese,” he recalls. An admirer of the Vietnamese nationalist leader, Tedjabayu is soon recounting stories about the unyielding spirit shown by Vietnamese people in their wars of resistance. He even recites Ho Chi Minh’s poem “Victory News,” which he says revealed the Communist leader’s romantic side as well as his revolutionary spirit.
Unfortunately, Tedjabayu and his vast knowledge about Vietnam has become somewhat of a rarity among Indonesians. He says himself, “(Most) people in ASEAN only know about the war in Vietnam. They don’t know the new society, the new people, the new hope, as well as the new problems emerging in Vietnam.”
Local vs. international
Indonesian journalists concede that in this country, the scant appearance of news about Vietnam in local publications may be partly to blame. They add that the few that are run come mostly from Western news agencies, such as the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and Reuters. The Indonesian media, they say, cover Vietnam only during major sports events like the Southeast Asian Games, at a time of crisis, such as during the outbreak of bird flu there in early 2004, or when it is luring investors who may have otherwise considered Indonesia as their money’s destination.
“I have read many books about the war in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh,” says ISAI director Yosep Adi Prasetyo. “The Vietnamese people are ardent patriots. But I don’t have much information about Vietnam today except for the news that Vietnam has become a more attractive investment destination than Indonesia.”
“We used to be very interested in (regional) issues,” explains Raymond Toruan, the chief editor of the English-language Jakarta Post. “Then Indonesia was severely hit by the 1998 crisis in all aspects. And the people’s utmost concern is how to earn a living. There are so many domestic problems that we don’t have as much interest in international issues.”
“Is there terrorism or earthquake in Vietnam? If there is, we will cover the news right away,” says Bambang Harymurti, editor in chief of Tempo Koran, pointing out some possible reasons that could temporarily take the Indonesian media’s attention away from local affairs.
Yet while Indonesian editors admit that they no longer devote as much space to international events as they used to because of an increasing focus on domestic issues, they also point out that there really is scarce information available on Vietnam outside of those provided by Western news agencies. Some of them think that perhaps Vietnam does not know how to advertise itself – a guess that is probably close to the truth. But there are those who surmise that Vietnamese authorities simply do not want to let go of much information about the country. Santoso, director of Radio 68H station in Jakarta, hints of missed opportunities when he tells this writer, “You should be more open in providing information. We wish to cooperate with Vietnamese journalists for our Asian program.”
Even the people who used to live and work in Vietnam find it difficult to get access to current information about it. Says Djafar H. Assegaff, former Indonesian ambassador of Indonesia to Vietnam and now the deputy director of Metro TV: “I usually go online to seek information about Vietnam but there are few Web pages introducing Vietnam in English.”
Netful of worries
Vietnam’s official websites are indeed not the best sources of information about the country. Hardly updated, they carry information that is often no longer current or useful. Because of budgetary constraints, the websites are not in the government’s priority list.
Vietnam got connected to the Internet in 1997, but so far it has not fully exploited this channel of information exchange. One reason for this is a particularly nagging worry that has been bothering the Communist government: that the Internet would open up the country to unfettered access to information from outside.
Vietnamese authorities thus see a need to regulate and control Internet content. This has been addressed by the 1999 Press Law, which authorizes the Ministry of Information and Culture to exercise control over print and broadcast media, as well as the Internet. Under the law, journalists can be jailed or fined for publishing news and information deemed unsuitable by the state or certain individuals. In addition, all Vietnamese media are required to have a “socialist orientation” under which they should serve, as one Vietnamese official once said, as “the voice of the Party, the State, the social organizations, and a forum for the people.”
Beyond the ideological considerations, price is another reason the Vietnamese haven’t fully tapped the Internet. Only a very small segment of the population can afford the current commercial Internet rates. Then there’s the language problem; while English is the dominant language on the Web, few Vietnamese are conversant in the language.
Ironically, most of the books on Vietnam that are available outside of that country are in English as well. For many Indonesians interested in Vietnam, this has also posed a problem since not very many of them are used to reading English.
And so for now, the Vietnam many Indonesians see and hear about is often the flickering one appearing on big and small screens. If only film viewers in this country could be all like Garin Nugroho, who declares, “We know that American movies provide only one side (of the story). We also know that they are nothing but movies.”